How Dangerous Are Falling Bullets?

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The old adage “what goes up must come down” applies to virtually every object on Earth including bullets. When a bullet travels through the air, the air resistance around the bullet and the force of gravity inevitably bring the projectile to the ground. The firing arc and speed of travel determine the effective range and potential damage of a bullet. All firearm owners should know the dangers of discharging weapons into the air and how falling bullets work from a physics and aerodynamics-focused perspective.

The Science Behind Falling Bullets

The muzzle velocity of a weapon determines how fast the bullet leaves the weapon. For example, the AK-47 fires around at about 1,500 miles per hour or 670 meters per second. The force of one round is equivalent to a brick thrown from 30 stories, concentrated in a tiny point of the tip of the round. This is a tremendous amount of force in a very small amount of space, easily enough to kill or seriously injure a human being.

Thanks to air resistance, the velocity of a bullet drops as soon as it leaves the barrel of the weapon. A bullet fired directly into the air at 1,500 miles per hour would eventually slow down and start falling back to Earth, reaching terminal velocity of about 150 miles per hour. This may only be a fraction of the bullet’s original velocity, but the force behind 150 miles per hour is about 200 feet per second, easily enough force to cause a severe or fatal injury.

Wind speed and direction also influence bullets’ flight patterns. Professional sharpshooters and military snipers learn to gauge wind speed by looking at swaying tree branches or flags and measuring wind force in a target area. For example, a sniper may need to aim to the left or right and slightly above a target, compensating for the arc of the bullet’s travel path as wind and drag from air resistance act upon the bullet in flight. The longer the shot, the more the shooter will need to compensate for these forces.

Falling Bullet Injury Statistics

While it may sound like the chances of randomly suffering an injury from a falling bullet are remote, the reality is that these injuries are more common than people realize. This is especially true in areas with high concentrations of firearm owners and traditions of celebratory shooting.

Most falling bullet injuries and deaths do not occur from hunting or target shooting accidents, but from celebratory shooting directly into the air over populated areas. City leaders in Florida communities including police officials and shooting victims spoke out against celebratory shooting during New Years’ celebrations, citing numerous injuries and deaths in recent years.

In Iraq in 2003 more than 20 people suffered injuries from celebratory shooting after the deaths of Saddam Hussein’s sons. That same year, Serbian wedding guests accidentally shot down a small airplane. These are just two examples of serious injuries that can occur from shooting into the air. Celebratory shooting into the air typically accounts for almost 60% of all shooting-related injuries and deaths during celebratory events. The odds of suffering falling bullet-related injuries may be relatively low for most Americans, but these accidents can and do occur and victims should know their rights to legal recovery.

Liability for Falling Bullet Injuries

Obviously, liability for an injury caused by a falling bullet would fall to the shooter. However, locating and identifying the shooter for a falling bullet injury can be very difficult. During high winds, a bullet fired straight up could potentially fall several miles away. The victim or the victim’s family would need to link the reported time of the injury to the time of nearby shooting. Ballistics tests could then link the bullet to the original shooter, and the shooter would likely face civil and criminal charges for causing an injury due to celebratory or otherwise negligent shooting.

Firing a weapon into the air and injuring or killing another person could easily lead to reckless endangerment charges and firearms violation charges. The victim or the victim’s family would also have the right to pursue a civil lawsuit against the shooter to recover medical expenses, property damage, pain and suffering, wrongful death, or other damages. Ultimately, it is never wise to fire a bullet into the air in celebration.